Police in Hong Kong and Malaysia have arrested 27 people in a joint operation with Interpol to crack down on a fraud syndicate that swindled 37 women in Southeast Asia out of HK$15 million (S$2.6 million) through romance scams.
The Hong Kong force also revealed on Wednesday (Dec 1) that it had handled a total of 1,369 reports of online romance fraud in the first 10 months of this year, up 80 per cent from the 760 cases in the same period of 2020.
According to city police, the amount of money victims had lost to such scams rose by 170 per cent to HK$480 million between January and October this year.
The 19 women and eight men, aged between 20 and 66, were rounded up in an ongoing operation code-named "Mountleap", which began on July 22.
According to the force, the Malaysia-based internet love scam ring was identified in a joint investigation by police in two locations, with the help of Interpol.
Chief Inspector Cheung Wai-ho, of the cyber security and technology crime bureau, said the gang hunted for targets in Southeast Asia on dating apps. After forming a relationship, he added, the criminals requested that victims transfer money to them under various pretexts.
During the operation, Royal Malaysian Police detained seven Nigerian members of the syndicate - five men and two women. They were arrested in Malaysia on suspicion of deception and overstaying in the country.
The investigation revealed that those arrested in Malaysia remotely controlled stooge bank accounts in Hong Kong, which were used to collect the scammed money and launder the proceeds of crime, according to police.
Officers in Hong Kong then detained 20 suspects — 17 women and three men — who were the holders of those bank accounts. They were held on suspicion of money laundering, an offence punishable by up to 14 years in jail and a HK$5 million fine.
Senior Inspector Hui Nok, of the same bureau, said some of the suspects arrested in the city claimed they had been tricked by their online "boyfriends" into handing over their bank account details for business purposes.
Officers seized 10 mobile phones as well as bank cards and documents in connection with the case. Those picked up in Hong Kong were released on bail pending further investigation.
Police said the investigation was continuing and further arrests were possible. The senior inspector reminded members of the public not to allow their bank accounts to be used by others to handle money from unknown sources.
She also urged the public to be cautious when meeting people on the internet.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.